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How to get to YC interview - Insider's Guide to YC W13 Application

The deadline to apply for YC W13 batch is coming up. So I figured I'd write about how to fill out the application to get an interview.

Alex and I applied and got into YC W11. And now as an YC alumnus I help to read the applications. After you read a few of these, the common problems and lessons become obvious.

The # 1 thing that YC worries about is rejecting somebody they should have accepted. Picking the best applications is easy, they are obviously good in every respect. But picking from the rest of them is profoundly hard.

So what I am going to do here is to tell you what YC looks for and how to best show that you got it. I am hoping I can help a few right founders get an interview. And maybe make reading the applications a bit more fun.

Buyer beware - in no way do I speak for YC. These are just my opinions.

Executive summary

  • YC looks for great founders. That's what matters
  • use your application to show that you might be a great founder
  • partners/alumni can only spend a few minutes reading your application
  • be concise
  • use simple English. 4th-5th grade level is good
  • actually manage to explain what your company is going to make
Steps to get to YC interview

Understand your reader

YC is looking for great founders. So the purpose of the application is to show that you may be great. That's it. That's all you are trying to do.

There are 2 ways to do this. The simplest is if you've already done some impressive things. This is what the "the most impressive thing other than this startup that each founder has built or achieved" and related questions are about.

The other way is with you idea/startup. Your idea is important to the extent that it shows you might be a great founder.

You'd think that what matters here is being useful, making progress and having traction. And you'd be right. But most applications have a much more basic problem here -- the ideas are just about impossible to understand.

Other than that, you need to realize that YC gets a ton of applications. Partners and alums can only spend a few minutes per application. So, you need to write the answers so they are fast to read and easy to understand.

With this in mind let's take a look at a couple of places where most applications can be improved.

Questions about founders

There are a few questions in the application that directly ask about you, not about the idea. A common mistake is to think these are not important. Couldn't be further from the truth.

Look, past performance predicts future behavior. What YC is saying here is - "Yes, you probably haven't founded a startup before. But what have you achieved in the past that's loosely similar?"

Pay attention to these:

Please tell us in one or two sentences about the most impressive thing other than this startup that each founder has built or achieved.

This is the most important question on the application. Focus on things that can be useful in a startup. For technical founders good answers often talk about previous products built, often outside work.

Please tell us about the time you most successfully hacked some (non-computer) system to your advantage

2nd most important question. In an early stage company few things are done by the book. Especially hustling to sell. So this is another version of "most impressive" question, but focused on things like hustling and otherwise exploiting existing systems.

Please tell us something surprising or amusing that one of you has discovered. (The answer need not be related to your project.)

These are usually fun to read. The best answers tend to focus on amusing insights discovered while doing yet another impressive thing. You should be seeing a pattern here.

Questions about idea/startup

What is your company going to make?

Let me be frank. Most answers to this question are a disaster. They are simply impossible to understand. And if I can't understand it, I don't have the context to understand the rest of the application. I have a special word for that - BAD.

So, lets work on this. You won't become a good copywriter in the next week. But if you can follow a few simple steps you can fake it:

  • re-read PG's application guide
  • use 4th grade English. Short sentences. Simple words. Here is a grader
  • keep it short or at least break things up into short paragraphs
  • don't convince me it's good. Just it explain what it does
  • get rid of all the adjectives
  • test this answer on a few people before submitting

I recall seeing a good answer using Google as an example. I can't find the original, but it went something like this:

Google is a website. A user comes to the website and sees and text box and a submit button. He types in words into the text box and clicks on the button. Google then shows him a list of websites that contain the words he just typed in.

This is what you want.

BTW, a special warning to MBAs and scientists. You guys seem to be trained to write in a way that's hard to understand. You may need extra help here.

Get emails with YC application tips

If you found this useful you should subscribe to my mailing list. I'll talk about the application in more depth there. Expect a short email every other day until the application deadline. To subscribe click here.

Thanks to Jud Gardner and Rick Morrison for reading drafts of this.

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